I finished a book the other day I’d been meaning to read for at least a decade — Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, released in 1962. I posted a summary below. I also understood it influenced thought a lot. I had to speak to a few people who were adults when it came out to understand its impact at the time, which they assured me was colossal — a common-sense bolt out of the blue from a humble woman who simply researched and compiled information anyone else could have. It seems, like Vietnam, one of the major turning points about which the American people began to question their government and find it didn’t consistently act in their interests. In fact, it seemed often to work against the people’s interests — their health! — in favor of corporate profits.
I started to read it for the science and to see how Carson’s revolution in viewing pesticides complemented Jane Jacobs’ revolution in viewing city planning. I saw strong parallels, which the people from the generation before mine that I asked supported. I would love to read thoughts from readers who were adults when the book came out if they care to comment.
I found myself asking about it in a historical perspective — of the U.S. government finding itself faring poorly in conflicts in Vietnam, Cuba, the USSR, and China. And now in dropping known poisons and carcinogens on its citizens within its borders, with negligible evidence it could achieve its goals.
Summary of the book and description of author
Quoting the National Resource Defense Council’s page on her summarizing the book:
Carson was happiest writing about the strength and resilience of natural systems. Her books Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us (which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks), and The Edge of The Sea were hymns to the inter-connectedness of nature and all living things. Although she rarely used the term, Carson held an ecological view of nature, describing in precise yet poetic language the complex web of life that linked mollusks to sea-birds to the fish swimming in the ocean’s deepest and most inaccessible reaches.
DDT, the most powerful pesticide the world had ever known, exposed nature’s vulnerability. Unlike most pesticides, whose effectiveness is limited to destroying one or two types of insects, DDT was capable of killing hundreds of different kinds at once. Developed in 1939, it first distinguished itself during World War II, clearing South Pacific islands of malaria-causing insects for U.S. troops, while in Europe being used as an effective de-lousing powder. Its inventor was awarded the Nobel Prize.
When DDT became available for civilian use in 1945, there were only a few people who expressed second thoughts about this new miracle compound. One was nature writer Edwin Way Teale, who warned, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away.” Another was Rachel Carson, who wrote to the Reader’s Digest to propose an article about a series of tests on DDT being conducted not far from where she lived in Maryland. The magazine rejected the idea.
Thirteen years later, in 1958, Carson’s interest in writing about the dangers of DDT was rekindled when she received a letter from a friend in Massachusetts bemoaning the large bird kills which had occurred on Cape Cod as the result of DDT sprayings. The use of DDT had proliferated greatly since 1945 and Carson again tried, unsuccessfully, to interest a magazine in assigning her the story of its less desirable effects. By 1958 Carson was a best-selling author, and the fact that she could not obtain a magazine assignment to write about DDT is indicative of how heretical and controversial her views on the subject must have seemed. Having already amassed a large quantity of research on the subject, however, Carson decided to go ahead and tackle the DDT issue in a book.
Silent Spring took Carson four years to complete. It meticulously described how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and caused cancer and genetic damage. A single application on a crop, she wrote, killed insects for weeks and months, and not only the targeted insects but countless more, and remained toxic in the environment even after it was diluted by rainwater. Carson concluded that DDT and other pesticides had irrevocably harmed birds and animals and had contaminated the entire world food supply. The book’s most haunting and famous chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” depicted a nameless American town where all life — from fish to birds to apple blossoms to human children — had been “silenced” by the insidious effects of DDT.
She wrote about many more pesticides than DDT, as well as on the government and industry policies leading to overuse in the face of contrary evidence and popular opposition.
I found the book at times painful to read for the outrage people must have felt at the time — the government pushing to dump carcinogens across wide swaths of the country that killed more life than desired, having no hope, on careful reflection and minor checking, of accomplishing the stated goals. Feeling helpless relative to corporations profiting off destroying their health and environment, acting with disrespect and disdain for nature, in flagrant ignorance of the effects of their actions.
Incidentally, the best solution I could think of for the problem of these powerful people run amok is to teach leadership based in awareness of the consequences of one’s actions, thoughtfulness, and Samurai Walk strategic thinking. Also for people to learn more about nature, which is to say to teach them science and math.
I think people generally view math and science as “just” hard subjects, requirements, and ways to reach stable, well-paying jobs after graduation. I suggest seeing them differently — as studying the most beautiful thing there is: nature. What else is there? What do we value more? Profit? At what cost?
Dominance and arrogance, which characterized the government’s actions and choices, have their places, but I’ll take wonder, humility, and harmony.
Exercise to the reader
I’ll close with a request to you. If there’s a light, air conditioning unity, or something like it you don’t need on, or if you could walk, bike, or not go somewhere instead of driving would you please? And consider that change the start of a new way of living, not just something you’re doing one off.
Did you turn something off that was unnecessarily off or some equivalent?